Did you know that all termites in the world weigh together as much as all people PLUS all ants together? And that they create so much greenhouse gasses that without termites global temperature would drop quite a few degrees?… The fascinating world of termites is the topic of a documentary film co-produced by the Czech Life Sciences University entitled The World according to Termites which we show as part of the Competition Section of the LSFF 2017.
The World According to Termites, a competition film, could hardly find a more erudite host than Jan Šobotník, an expert on these small creatures who swarm the warmer climates of the whole world. It is an old evolutionary group, their direct relatives are cockroaches (don’t get your termites mixed up with ants, because ants are more related to bees); and if you thought that ants are some kind of tough guys, compared to termites they are losers. The complex termite communities have existed millions of years longer and their evolution strategy is more elaborate.
Compared to the armoured bodies of ants, termites have one disadvantage: their bodies are soft and they usually stand no chance against predators. That’s why their life takes place hidden inside a system of above-ground or under-ground tunnels. They live on vegetable food in all stages of decomposition – a termite community can liquidate a whole fallen tree or a wooden house – in the form of excrement termites return indigested elements to the soil from where other trees and plants can absorb the simple substances. As there are so many of them, in tropical forests termites work as an enormously effective recycling unit without which the whole system couldn’t function.
Jan Šobotník’s indispensable equipment includes a microscope as well as a machete. The World According to Termites shows us both sides of his research work: cutting his way through the forest when setting termite bait, or capturing the lethal attack of Neocapritermes taracua in a lab with a technology capable of 140 000 fps – by the way we don’t know of any other creature who’d be capable of moving that fast.
However, termites are not interesting only because of the speed with which they can move their mandibles. You will see termites who sacrifice themselves for the community when attacked and who simply explode. You will find out how the caste system of a termite nest functions, how to calculate termite density of a particular area (you just sit and count… one thousand, two thousand, three thousand…) and you will learn that the first farmers in the world were… You guessed it.
The World According to Termites is shown on Thursday 19th October at 2 p.m. in the Auditorium. There is a discussion after the film with doc. Mgr. Jan Šobotník, PhD. and Prof. Jan Žďárek. Entry free of charge.
How did you come up with the idea of shooting a documentary film on termites and what role did the Czech Life Sciences University play in its production?
The idea was initiated by director Jan Hošek. I agreed and the CULS Faculty of Forestry and Wood Sciences supported our plan by providing funding necessary to enlarge the team working on the projects by cameraman (and later also producer) Marián Polák and director Hošek. In other words, we worked on our topics and when the work plan was fulfilled (for example at the cost of just half a day of rest during a three-week continuous work in Ebogo), we all assisted the men behind the camera to shoot the best of French Guiana and Cameroon.
In the film you say that the tradition of “tramping” in the Czech Republic means that Czech scientists enjoy field trips much more than those from abroad. Are Czech scientists really tougher than the others?
I don’t want to generalise, in fact I know quite a few foreign researchers who go on expeditions that for me are beyond imaginable. They have all always managed it with us somehow, but they usually suffer more than we do, because for them it’s not an obvious thing to have a good tent (not always necessary), boots, mess tin, knife, spoon, tin cup, headtorch, toilet paper etc, in short everyday objects without which a sensible person doesn’t go camping.
Termites are related to cockroaches and as the film shows they are also as significant for nature. Are there some ideas how their characteristics could be used or “tamed” for practical purposes, for example in agriculture?
Yes and no. A lot of money is invested in projects for biofermentation reactors that would work with plant material and termite enzymes, whether their own or produced by symbiotic microorganisms. But the largest share of financial resources goes towards protection of property against the destructive power of some termites…
You obviously love termites. Have you ever tasted a roasted termite, or would that be cannibalism for you?
I haven’t had the chance. It is usually the winged adults that are eaten, but they regularly appear at the end of the rain season, and that is the season to better avoid the tropics. A real delicacy are supposedly physogastric termite queens, but they always end up in a test tube, because to get to them you need a pickaxe and a big deal of determination.